New guidance from the Biden administration details how states and certain school districts must protect high-poverty districts and schools from funding cuts as a condition of receiving their share of some $122 billion in COVID-19 relief money approved by Congress in March.
The guidance announced Wednesday about provisions of the American Rescue Plan comes as the administration launches a public relations blitz on equity issues, including release of a report confirming concerns many educators have raised about the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable students and on student mental health.
“For the first time ever, these [maintenance of equity] requirements will ensure that school districts and schools serving a large share of students from low-income backgrounds will not experience disproportionate budget cuts—and that the school districts with the highest poverty do not receive any decrease in state per-pupil funding below their pre-pandemic level,” the department said in a statement unveiling the guidance, which is nonbinding. “In addition, high-poverty schools will also be protected from disproportionate cuts to staffing.”
The newly spelled out “maintenance of equity” requirements under the American Rescue Plan say states receiving the COVID-19 can’t cut funding to their highest-poverty districts—as determined by rank order, starting with the district with the state’s highest poverty rate—that collectively enroll 20 percent of the state’s students. They also can’t cut funding disproportionately to “high-need” districts—again, as determined by rank order—that collectively enroll 50 percent of the state’s students. Fiscal 2019 is the year officials must use to compare spending levels.
Under the emergency funding law, districts themselves are also subject to maintenance of equity requirements that shield high-poverty schools from disproportionate funding and staffing cuts. However, a significant share districts are exempt from these requirements, such as those that enroll fewer than 1,000 students.
Among other things, the new U.S. Department of Education guidance says that these “maintenance of equity” requirements apply to the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. However, the guidance says that even though the test for meeting these requirements must account for those years after the fact, states should not delay in getting the relief money to districts. In theory, that could make it harder to put real teeth into the requirement when it comes to enforcement, since the money will have already gone out and largely spent.
The guidance also says officials must rely on poverty estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau when determining which districts and schools must be shielded from state and local funding cuts; states must use Title I data if that census information isn’t available for a district, such as for charter school districts. And states must provide baseline data for maintenance of equity requirements to the Education Department by July 30 of this year, although they can seek an extension until Oct. 15.
States and local school districts also should not include spending on capital outlays and debt service when determining their expenditures, according to the guidance.
However, some in the education field already had voiced concern about the impact of the equity requirements embedded in the American Rescue Plan. There’s worry, for example, that it doesn’t account for how local school budgets actually work.
Cardona’s department starts a big equity push
As part of its push on equity concerns stemming the pandemic, the Education Department also announced that it will hold an “Equity Summit Series” starting on June 22. It will feature U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten, and others, and will focus on how schools can adopt new strategies and priorities to ensure they reflect the needs and desires of underserved communities, and how they can adopt culturally and linguistically responsive learning experiences.
In addition, the department released a report from its office for civil rights detailing the preexisting disparities in education that the pandemic exacerbated.
On the K-12 front, the report found, for example, that COVID-19 “appears to have deepened the impact of disparities in access and opportunity facing many students of color in public schools, including technological and other barriers that make it harder to stay engaged in virtual classrooms.”
Last year, a report from a coalition of education groups found that children in 1 in 3 Black, Latino, and American Indian/Alaska Native households lacked high-speed internet, which can cripple students’ ability to keep up with remote classes and school work.
And for both K-12 and higher education, the office for civil rights’ report stated that, “Nearly all students have experienced some challenges to their mental health and well-being during the pandemic and many have lost access to school-based services and supports.”
The report also highlighted how Asian-American students have been at greater risk of violence, harassment, and discrimination in both K-12 at postsecondary institutions, and how LGBTQ students in K-12 have faced heightened risk of anxiety and stress while potentially losing school-based support groups, peers.
Experts have been studying natural disasters to determine how schools can support students’ future mental health needs during and after the pandemic, unprecedented as it is.
“It is important to recognize that disparities can sometimes be evidence of legal injuries under Federal civil rights laws, even when policies and practices do not directly single out a group of people for harm,” Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, wrote in an introduction to the report. Goldberg highlighted Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination by race, color, and national origin in education programs that receive federal assistance.
On Wednesday, the department also highlighted President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request from late last month that includes a proposed $20 billion “equity grant” program. Learn more about that here.